Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Gathering

Sometimes I wish I kept a journal while growing up. Then, as an adult, I could easily dig into the past and write witty, interesting, stories for this blog. Instead, I'm left with mismatched scraps of minutia that float around in my brain. They eventually weave themselves together into a holiday tapestry, which plays in the multiplex that is my brain. Grab some popcorn. Now Showing, one such tapestry:

It’s Christmas morning and my mother is standing in the kitchen in front of a bronze colored electric range. She is mashing a big metal pot full of boiled potatoes, still dressed in her bathrobe, her head is wrapped in a toilet paper turban which protects a head full of pin curls that she set the night before while watching The Carol Burnett Show. A Virginia Slim cigarette droops from her lips with a 1-½ inch ash hanging from its tip. “Watch your cigarette…” I call out, but it’s too late, and the ash surrenders to the laws of gravity and collapses into the pot of spuds. My mother makes a half-hearted attempt to separate the ash from the potatoes and then continues mashing.

It’s 1975, and against the protests of my sister Maureen and I, my mother has again invited two mentally challenged coworkers to join us (her nine children, and four of their spouses) for Christmas dinner. Being teenagers, Maureen and I are totally embarrassed by our mother's charity, and compassion. We say things like… “What, are we a soup kitchen?” and “Why can’t we just have a normal Christmas like other families?”

Our mother becomes angry with us, and says that we’re being selfish and missing the whole point of the holiday. “If it weren’t for us,” she says, “these people would be spending Christmas alone."

“Alright,” we bargain. “You can invite Crazy Ann, but can’t Screwy Louie stay home.”

“Too late,” my mother says, “Jimmy (my brother) already went to pick him up.”

“Great,” Maureen says sarcastically. “Remember last year? Louie kept staring at Eileen’s (my sister) chest and yelling, Headlights! Headlights!
Then he spent the rest of the day telling her how much she looked like Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched.”

Now I pipe in; “Every year it’s the same thing. Louie walks in screaming Kaymadunna... Kaymadunna. Doesn’t he know your name is Kay McDonough? He says it like it’s all one word. Next, he’ll see me and ask; “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Last year, just to get him off my back, I told him I wanted to be a garbage man. That really set him off. He spent the rest of the day counseling me, saying I should be a doctor or a lawyer, anything but a garbage man. “But I really like trash,” I told him.

We hear the front door shut and soon “Crazy Ann” is standing in the kitchen. She looks as if she has just returned from a series of shock treatment sessions. Her eyebrows are thick and severe looking. Her lipstick is bright red, and smeared across her face. I remember thinking she looked like a cross between Joan Crawford in “Whatever happened to Baby Jane,” and Lady Elaine Fairchild from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
If truth be told, Ann really wasn’t crazy, but rather a woman who had a hard life and suffered a series of nervous breakdowns. Each year she sits silently at our Christmas dinner table, doing her best to deflect my mother’s attempts to engage her in conversation with “yes” and “no” answers.

“Ann,” my mother asks. “Do you have a Christmas tree in your apartment?”

“No,” Ann answers. “I’m Jewish.”

Maureen and I glare at our mother.

By noon, with the exception of Jimmy and Louie, all the guest have arrived. It is snowing and my mother is getting nervous. She jumps out of her chair whenever the phone rings and finally, one of those calls is from Jimmy.

Jimmy says that Louie isn’t at his apartment. He rang his bell several times and even circled the neighborhood. Louie is nowhere to be found. My mother is upset by this news, but she tries to stay calm. Maybe, she thinks, Louie got a ride from a friend or perhaps he took a cab to our house and just hasn’t arrived yet. She tells Jimmy to circle the block one more time and then come home. I can tell her nerves are on edge as I watch her stir the gravy,
“Watch out for your cig…” I call, but again I'm too late, and another 1 ½” ash falls into the gravy boat.

While the family gathers round the table, my mother makes a series of phone calls to the New Haven Police Department. Each time she gives a description of Louie to the desk sergeant, explaining that he is a mentally disabled man and that he should have been to our house hours ago. The sergeant says that it's too soon to file a missing person’s report, but that he's sure Louie will show up eventually. We all take turns reassuring our mother the police are right, and then ask her to lead us in prayer by saying "Grace" before our meal. She begins:

Forgive me Father
For I have sinned
It has been…

We all burst out laughing.

As her act of contrition, she runs back to the phone and tracks down Louie’s friends and neighbors. She asks each of them if they know where Louie is. Nobody does. Different scenarios are now racing through her head. Did he forget? Did he get another invitation? Is he lying dead on the side of the road? Her questions are soon answered when Louie finally calls and says that he had gotten another dinner offer, and simply forgot to tell my mother about it. He apologizes profusely.

My mother is furious.

That was the last time Louie spent a holiday with our family. He eventually found a girl, got married, and now eats (nicotine free) holiday meals with a saner group of people. He still thinks I’m hauling garbage somewhere.

I don’t know what became of “Crazy Ann.”

My mother passed away on December 23, 1996 and now the Christmas season is bittersweet for my family and me. We're no longer embarrassed by our mother’s charity and compassion. In fact...we’re quite proud of it.


Tony Alva said...

Well done...

Ate many ash trimmed meals myself as a kid.

Anonymous said...

This is one of your best stories.
Put it in the book - Crazy Ann and all!